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Tested: Gigabyte Brix Pro Mini PC

By Loyd Case

The Brix Pro is a tiny, nearly cube-shaped PC sold by Gigabyte. Inside is an Intel Core i7 4770R running at 3.2GHz and including Intel Iris Pro graphics. I love this little PC. But I also hate it.

The Brix Pro is a tiny, nearly cube-shaped PC sold by Gigabyte. Inside is an Intel Core i7 4770R running at 3.2GHz and including Intel Iris Pro graphics. I love this little PC. I also hate this little PC.

Before I talk about the duality of my testing experience with Gigabytes slick little design, let’s talk about its unique design elements.

The Brix Pro is just 4.3 inches x 4.5 inches and just 2.4 inches high.

Brix Pro: Outside and In

The $650 Brix Pro is similar to Intel’s NUC (Next Unit of Computing) concept, but just a bit bigger. Gigabyte’s goal was not to build the smallest possible PC, but to build the smallest possible, high performance PC. That laudable goal dictated some of the key design elements.

Size. The Brix Pro is pretty small, at 4.5 x 4.3 x 2.4 inches. It’s bigger than Intel’s NUC, however, which is less than 1.4 inches tall.

Components. The highest end Brix Pro ships with an Intel Core i7 4770R CPU, with four cores and supporting eight threads. It runs at 3.2GHz, as opposed to the 2.5GHz Core i5 Intel uses in its NUC. The 4770R includes Intel’s Iris Pro GPU. The Iris Pro is a GT3e GPU, in Intel’s parlance, which includes two full graphics “slices.” This translates to 40 execution units. Since each EU contains 8 shader cores, that’s 400 shader cores. The “e” in GT3e refers to the 128MB of high speed, off-chip cache that’s built into the CPU package. The GT3e can run at speeds up to 1.3GHz.

This is where a potential problem crops up, as we’ll see shortly. The GT3e itself is rated at over 50W TDP by itself. The entire Core i7 4770R is rated at a 65W TDP. While relatively low power by Intel standards (the desktop Core i7 4770K is rated at 84W), that’s still a lot of heat to dissipate in such a tiny box.

Cooling. One reason the Brix Pro is so tall is its beefy copper heat sink and fan.

The cooling subsystem is almost as large as the motherboard and adds a lot of height to the system.

That’s a lot of copper in this tiny package, and that heat sink contributes substantially to the overall heft – the Brix Pro weighs almost two full pounds (31.8 ounces.) By the same token, it’s a relatively small fan which needs to spin at high RPMs to keep the system cool when it’s running flat-out.

Smart DIY Design. When you unpack the box, you’ll find the PC, the PSU, drive DVD, a quick start guide and a plate that allows you to mount the Brix Pro onto a VESA mount point on an LCD flat panel display.

The box contents are minimalist, but complete, as befitting an NUC-style PC.

This tiny package ships with a useful collection of I/O ports. The rear of the body includes an HDMI port, one mini-DisplayPort connector, a pair of USB 3.0 ports, and RJ-45 gigabit Ethernet port and power input. The power supply is a separate, 135W power brick.

That’s a lot of connectors for a small package. Note the large area taken up by airflow exhaust.

Most of the rear surface, though, consists of a pair of honeycomb vents for airflow.

The front ports include a pair of USB 3.0 ports and an audio out jack that can be used for headphones or as an S/PDIF digital audio connector.

Four screws on the bottom hold the case together. They’re easy to remove, but you’ll need a pretty small Philips head screwdriver.

Just four screws…

Once the case is off, the top of the motherboard reveals all the accessible componentry: two SODIMM slots (which require 1.5v DIMMs), an mSATA slot, a mini-PCI slot underneath installed so that an mSATA SSD will cover any mini-PCI card, and a mini-PCI WiFi/Bluetooth module.

All user accessible components are on top.

It’s important that you use 1.5v SODIMM modules. If you don’t, you’ll get an error during POST telling you the memory voltage is too high. I used a pair of 8GB Crucial DDR3-1600 modules. I also installed a 240GB Crucial M500 mSATA SSD. You don’t need to remove the motherboard during installation; the CPU and associated heat sink are on the underside of the board, but don’t need to be accessed.

While the system includes an mSATA port, you don’t need to use it. The top shell includes mounting points for a 2.5-inch drive, which can be an SSD or standard rotating media hard drive. Of course, this also allows you to have two drives: one mSATA plus one standard 2.5-inch form factor drive.

You can install a standard, 2.5-inch laptop drive in the top of the system shell.

All you need to do is remove the four screws, install memory and storage, re-attach the shell and you’re ready to go.

Performance

After installing Windows 8.1, I ran my usual set of benchmarks. I didn’t bother with normal system benchmarks. A 3.2GHz, quad-core Haswell system with 16GB of RAM is pretty high end by today’s standards, and should suffice for most needs. I was curious as to how Iris Pro graphics would work as a gaming GPU -- as it turns out, not very well.

BenchmarkBrix Pro/Irs Pro GraphicsAMD A10-7850, 3.7GHzNvidia GTX 750Ti, core i7 4770K
3DMark Fire Strike148014103903
Metro Last Light, 1080p, medium, no AA11fps16fps50fps
Bioshock Infinite, very high, 1080p20fps19fps65fps
Tomb Raider, high, 1080p26fps21fps66fps
Sleeping Dogs, medium, 1080p37fps37fps50fps
GRID 2, high, 1080p40fps35fps111fps

Iris Pro with its 128MB eDRAM cache is about even with AMD’s latest A10-7850K. On the one hand, it’s good to see Intel and AMD remain neck and neck at the high end of their integrated graphics lineup. On the other hand, Nvidia’s low end GTX 750 Ti reference card beats them both, hands down. Discrete still wins, and if you like, you’d still get reasonably high frame rates with a lower end processor.

Games like Civilization V, Age of Wonders 3 and XCOM: Enemy Unknown run well at 1080p, particularly if you’re willing to turn off anti-aliasing.

Still, the Brix Pro would be fine for modest gaming. Games like Civilization V, Age of Wonders 3 and XCOM: Enemy Unknown run well at 1080p, particularly if you’re willing to turn off anti-aliasing. Only high-end shooters or similar titles with AAA graphics budgets might cause the graphics to wheeze a bit.

Performance isn’t the problem

I don’t really have an issue with performance, even on higher end games. Given the nature of integrated graphics, I’m willing to dial down eye-candy, and most games will still look good, even on a large screen HDTV. The real problem is noise.

When any graphics-intensive task runs, the fan inside the Brix Pro spins up, generating a loud whining noise that grates on you. It’s really an unpleasant, high-pitched whine. It was most noticeable when I used it as a standard PC, with the Brix Pro nearby. In my AV rack, the noise is less noticeable, but “less” is relative – it’s still unpleasant.

If you were using it as a Steam Box, streaming titles to the Brix over the network, the fan wouldn’t spin up as much. The GPU wouldn’t be using its rendering engine, just the video decode blocks, which don’t generate as much thermal output as when the GPU kicks in. Similarly, using the Brix Pro as a small office PC is fine, even if you’re running CPU-intensive tasks. The fan spins up, but the noise levels aren’t teeth grating. It’s only when the GPU kicks in that the fan spins at its highest that fan noise becomes oppressive.

Bottom line: if you wanted an ultra-compact gaming PC, this probably isn’t what you want.

The HTPC is dead; long live the HTPC

I originally picked up the Brix Pro to use as a compact home theater PC. It’s actually well suited for that task. You can load it up with storage, either internally or over USB 3.0. Gigabit Ethernet allows you to connect to a media server or NAS and display your content on your big screen.

To that end, I’m using a neat, tiny Rapoo wireless keyboard, complete with built-in touchpad. It’s great for casual messaging and the touchpad works pretty well. It’s not a gaming peripheral, but takes up barely more room than a remote control and offers good enough range for most living room situations.

The tiny Rapoo is neat. I wish it would work with my Dish DVR…

I find, however, that I almost never use the Brix Pro as a true HTPC. The advent of streaming, now built into almost every HDTV, Blu-ray player and in cheap, small boxes like Roku or Fire TV, essentially obsoletes the HTPC. Microsoft effectively, if not literally, killing off Windows Media Center doesn’t help. You can roll your own, of course, using your own favorite mix of software, but if all you really want to do is watch content, there are better solutions than an HTPC.

Too much Intel Inside

Gigabyte is working hard to develop even higher performance versions; they recently announced a Brix Pro which would include a desktop Nvidia GTX 760 GPU. I can only hope they solve the noise problem, because the reason you’d buy an Nvidia-based Brix Pro is for gaming. If Gigabyte can solve the fan noise problem, they’ll have a winner on their hands.

In the end, the Gigabyte Brix Pro is an ambitious, but flawed attempt to build a high performance PC in a small package. Users of tiny PCs probably don’t need the performance inherent in this package. Gigabyte builds lesser versions, including even more compact designs, which work just as well as standard office systems and cost less.